Tybee Post Theater and Georgia Council for the Arts have teamed up to bring back the Post Theater’s celebrated Silent Cinema Concerts series.
This weekend, audiences will enjoy The General, starring Buster Keaton. Widely regarded as one of the best silent film comedies in history, the 1926 film is a landmark achievement for Keaton and American cinema.
The General was adapted by William Pittenger’s memoir The Great Locomotive Chase, which chronicled a 1862 military raid in northern Georgia during the Civil War.
Union Army volunteers commandeered a train and took it to Chattanooga, trashing the Western and Atlanta Railroad line from Atlanta to Chattanooga along the way.
Keaton, a train history enthusiast who co-directed, co-produced, and co-scripted the film, didn’t believe that audiences would accept Confederates as villains. He flipped the script, casting the Union soldiers as the bad guys.
In the film, audiences meet Johnnie Gray (Keaton), a Western & Atlantic Railroad engineer with two true loves: a young lady, Annabelle Lee, played by Marion Mack, and the decidedly steely General, a locomotive.
Johnnie enthusiastically enlists in the Confederate Army when war breaks out, but is denied, being too valuable at his railroad job.
Due to unfortunate misunderstandings, it’s believed that Johnnie is too cowardly to enlist; Annabelle wants her man in uniform and says she’ll no longer see Johnnie until he’s marching for the cause.
When The General is high jacked by Union soldiers and Annabelle is held captive, Johnnie must save his train and his gal, with plenty of hijinks along the way.
Though it takes place right here in our home state, The General was filmed in central Oregon on an initial budget of $400,000.
Once the cameras were rolling, rumors spread through entertainment trade papers, reporting that the budget had grown to $1 million.
According to United Artists, there were 3,000 people on payroll with the film costing $400 an hour to make, and Keaton had gone wild with pyrotechnics and explosives, building real bridges and dams.
There was plenty of off-camera action, too: after having his foot crushed by a train wheel, a brakeman sued the production for $2,900, Keaton was knocked out at one point, and an assistant director was shot in the face with a blank cartridge.
Plus, the train’s wood fire engine was responsible for several fires, which spread to farmland and forests. Production payed $25 per burnt haystack. The film’s iconic train wreck scene required six cameras and cost $42,000 to make, making it the most expensive single shot in silent film history. The destroyed train was left in the riverbed after filming and wasn’t salvaged for 19 whole years, when it was used for scrap during World War II.
For all the cost and trouble, The General was poorly received when it debuted. Variety declared it “a flop”; Los Angeles Times declared that it “drags terribly with a long and tiresome chase of one engine by another.”
Regardless of the reviews, Keaton was proud of his work, and over time, critics began to agree. Now, it’s considered a major classic of the silent film era, heralded as a beautiful film with long-lasting historical relevance. It was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress in 1989 along with Casablanca, Citizen Kane, Gone with the Wind, and more.
The Post Theater screening uniquely features accompaniment by a chamber ensemble of Savannah Philharmonic performers, including Leslie Johnson, Sinisa Ciric, Peter Berquist, and Robin Beauchamp.
Rodney Sauer will play the score on Tybee Post Theater’s own Steinway piano. A national expert on silent movie scores, Sauer has a silent film ensemble of his own, the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra. He’ll play host at both screenings and hosts a talk-back program following the films.
The show kicks off with two comedic shorts, including “The Cook,” starring Keaton and Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle. With the laughs that these classic films elicit, the showing is sure to be anything but silent.